Where are podcasts headed?

May 11, 2016 Podcasting Marco Arment Federico Viticci Jan Böhmermann Olli Schulz Spotify

In tech, things have a way of happening simultaneously. The first has been a small debate about the future of podcasting, caused by this New York Times article.

On behalf of some podcasters, it makes the case for Apple — which provides the dominant podcast catalogue — to double down on the format:

Interviews with over two dozen podcasters and people inside Apple reveal a variety of complaints. The podcasters say that they are relegated to wooing a single Apple employee for the best promotion. That sharing on social media is cumbersome. And that for podcasters to make money, they need more information about their listeners, and Apple is in a unique position to provide it. The problems, they say, could even open up an opportunity for a competitor.

For a medium as young and dynamic as podcasting, it’s reasonable to assume that the infrastructure will change over time. And for podcasters, it’s a reasonable wish to have better insight, as aim to monetize their work. Knowing how large their audience is and who comprises it allows them to market their recordings more effectively and target ads more sensibly.

On the other hand, as many advocates of the status quo have pointed out, it is exactly that kind of logic which is ruining the web, and which has clogged with privacy-invading trackers, questionable ad practices — and led to the ongoing arms race to block those very ads and trackers.

Authors like Marco Arment and Federico Viticci have argued that podcasting has thrived precisely because of the way it is — democratic and decentralized, allowing anyone to create a podcast and be included in the podcast directories (=iTunes).

Having recently launched a podcast myself, I tend to agree — but let’s focus on the second development before I get into that. Spotify, the Swedish streaming giant, is turning from a music into a media company.

As The Next Web reported two days ago, it is making forays into video content by producing their own original content. Similarly, it has added podcasts to its apps and is producing content on this end, too: Here in Germany, it recently announced that it would become the new home for a podcast by comedian Jan Böhmermann (infamous for his recent spat with Turkish president Recep Erdoğan) and musician Olli Schulz.

For years, the two had hosted a radio show on RadioEins, a station of Germany’s public broadcasters, and gained somewhat of a cult following in the capital. A month ago, they quit — and announced they were moving on to Spotify. For Böhmermann and Schulz, both in tune with a young and mobile-savvy audience, the move makes more than just financial sense: Their radio show is suddenly a podcast, no longer bound by the schedules of the broadcaster.

Although their show had always been downloadable as a podcast following radio broadcast, the Spotify partnership arguably streamlines the process by releasing it immediately in that format. Digital is where their audience already is. And while Böhmermann has insisted that the podcast will be available for everyone (ad-free for Spotify subscribers), it seems as though it will exclusively be offered on the Spotify app, effectively eschewing the democratic and decentralized system that was talked about so much over the past days. 1

To me, this marks a third way things could go: in place of a beefed-up catalogue, as demanded by producers in the New York Times, podcasts could increasingly drift in the hands of large platforms — just as more and more popular tv shows are by Netflix, Amazon and the like. 2

I can also see Spotify and similar companies becoming to podcasting what Medium has become to blogging — a platform whose simplicity and reach trumps the liberty and data ownership provided by independent blogs. Whenever there is money to be made — and in podcasting, that is starting to be the case — platforms try to monopolize attention and advertising money. And Apple’s hands-off approach to podcasting, as simple and beautiful as I find it, could indeed be the opportunity for a competitor foreshadowed in the New York Times.

The fundamental problem, then, is not that podcasts are delivered in the form they are, or that they offer too little tracking abilities, but the fact that they are artificially routed through a catalogue in the hands of or large company. It’s like web traffic hinging on Google or news stories needing the Facebook algorithm. On the web, that’s a problem we can’t seem to stop having. And a problem that marginalizes small publishers everywhere. I think that podcasting needs a catalogue as decentralized as the format itself — open to all with basic, accurate statistics for the authors. That would help it more than a bigger Apple or a Spotify eager on swallowing up the medium.

  1. One could argue that Böhmermann and Schulz’ new show doesn’t even constitute a podcast, for the shear fact of existing only inside of a walled garden, but nomenclature aside, it has all the hallmarks of such a show, both in format and in the way it will be consumed.↩︎

  2. In that context, startup media company Gimlet was ahead of the curve — when they publicly thought about the idea of offering their podcasts in a proprietary app back in 2015. Ironically, it was Marco Arment who argued against it at the time — and now finds himself taking sides again.↩︎

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